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Bringing It Up

teafaerie | Musings | Thursday, August 15th, 2013

I totally missed the Women’s Visionary Congress in June. Sadly, I also missed the pre-con adventure to the hot springs, where many of my dearly beloved psychedelic sisters luxuriated around the pools together talking about all of my favorite topics and otherwise doing just exactly the kinds of things that I like to do best. To say that I very much wanted to attend the Congress this year is a gross understatement. In the end, however, I was persuaded to help facilitate what turned out to be a ridiculously epic superhero activation workshop on the East Coast. My life is a little bit crazy right now. Not that I’m complaining or anything.

 Cusp by Martina Hoffmann -, ©2000 Martina Hoffmann - used by Erowid with permission

I really do love the Women’s Visionary Congress, though. I was honored with the opportunity to give a variation on my Jedi Temple speech there in October of 2010, and I was impressed by all aspects of the production. Particularly the genuinely warm and helpful way that I consistently felt treated by the wonderful women in charge. I was the most junior speaker who had been asked to give a presentation that year, and I also happened to be in the throes of a tremendous personal crisis that rendered me something of a hot mess and a pain in the ass to work with. In spite of this, the WVC organizers were unfailingly patient and graceful with me in the midst of what must have been a veritable whirlwind of urgent requests for their all-too-limited time and attention.

I started to begin this paragraph with, “It was actually quite an excellent conference from an academic standpoint, too.” But I’m a painfully slow writer (and a stoner), so I often end up sitting and staring at whatever it was that I just typed in until it stops making any sense to me at all. It’s sort of a nauseating experience at best; but this time the true meaning of my carelessly written words snapped into focus for a change. Which sounds like it ought to feel awesome, but it didn’t. Mainly because I suddenly realized that I was already unconsciously playing into the precise mentality that I originally intended to expose and pick apart here. I am entirely sincere in my laudatory assessment of the WVC’s genuinely top-notch production, obviously. But upon reflection I can see how it sounds sort of like saying “that girl on the little league team is actually a very good player”. It feels like the listener is expected to be impressed and surprised. We’re all supposed to cheer when members of disadvantaged or disenfranchised groups succeed at doing as well or better than their more dominant counterparts. We hold them up as examples of how it really is possible to beat the odds after all. But it’s also kind of patronizing, when you come right down to it. So I hereby apologize. I know that most people would probably feel like it doesn’t even matter, but I think that’s because the majority of us have been conditioned from girlhood to either ignore or to willfully misinterpret the subtle but ever-present effluvia of condescension that permeates almost every important arena of opportunity. We’ve gotten used to it, in other words; so much so, that we don’t really even register these kinds of things anymore. Not even when we say them ourselves.

Women’s interests and issues naturally inform the entire community, and all of us stand to benefit from their thorough exploration. That part is pretty much self-evident, at least as far as the Teafaerie is concerned. But why is it that so many people are particularly enthused about the existence of an intentionally gynocentric psychedelics conference?

Is it simply the satisfaction associated with a reversal of an oppressive norm? I mean, I don’t think that anybody is seriously considering starting up a Men’s Visionary Congress (although I could imagine such an event potentially being enormously healing and awesome if it were played right; male-identified folk have as many unique issues and opportunities as their female counterparts, and I strongly feel that a world of good could come out of looking into them). But as things stand, there doesn’t seem to be much of a public call for it. Perhaps this is because it would be rather difficult to substantially distinguish such an event from the generality of the various psychedelic meet-ups that are already well established. (At least if one were to simply base one’s assessment on the gender of the vast majority of presenters.) And perhaps existing circumstances already provide men with enough male bonding time that no one has yet felt the need to produce a Mentheogens event. So in one sense I guess that it does feel somewhat exhilarating to turn the tables once in a while. It’s fun. It’s like having our own clubhouse where we finally get to make all of the rules for a change. But that’s not really the reason why we like to get together.

And it’s certainly not because we want to demonize or suppress our much-beloved menfolk. Quite a few members of the masculine gender do regularly attend each Congress as participants, and there are usually a couple of men on the presenter’s docket, too. It’s just that the ratio of female to male presenters at the WVC is somewhat closer to roughly the reverse of what it tends to be at your average psychedelics conference, most of which turn out to be veritable sausagefests–if not quite as glaringly so at the participant level, then certainly in the green room.

It is assuredly not that we’re simply retreating from an overly competitive battlefield. Quite the reverse! Many of us have worked very hard to establish a modicum of legitimacy and respect in the mainstream. And even the grudging and often rather condescendingly exceptionalist acceptance that we have barely begun to become accustomed to naturally makes us feel empowered. It inspires and emboldens us to press on toward a yet more fully balanced and well-integrated future. So it’s not like we’re going to give up on building inroads. For one thing, status within the larger community is quite a heady drug; once it has been tasted, human beings are generally rather reluctant to give it up.

I do think it’s important for the women in our community to occasionally come together and create a container where we can feel comfortable bringing up gender issues, though. Or anything else that we might feel compelled to talk about, for that matter. Like the content of our personal experiences. Many of my female friends feel somewhat modest when it comes to discussing the intimate details of their practice in mixed company. But I sure did hear some truly incredible stories when I attended one of the WVC’s open discussion groups. I’m not supposed to repeat anything that I learned there, and I’m not about to, because doing so would violate the trust that makes that sort of sharing circle work in the first place. But I will say that it was hands down some of the most fascinating stuff that I’ve ever heard about at any psychedelic symposium. Most of the yangier conferences have seemed to me to be almost obsessively focused on quantitative analysis. Which is essential, of course. And it’s safe. Nobody is ever going to grill an event coordinator about why he or she invited some of the world’s top research scientists to come share all of the hard data that they’ve been collecting. Whereas event producers may be very reasonably skittish about welcoming speakers who are keen to explore the more subjective psychological (or God forbid, spiritual) aspects of the situation, because the actual character of some of these experiences is just so freaking strange and confounding that anyone who dares to roll up their sleeves and really try to get into it runs a pretty heavy risk of sounding like a total wingnut to the uninitiated. The field already suffers from a whole host of public image issues, and nobody wants to exacerbate the situation. Especially not right now, when psychedelic studies finally seem to be enjoying a tiny bit of hard-won legitimacy in the academic sphere.

So we all carefully skirt our way around the enormous herd of wooly mammoths that take up three quarters of the goddamn conference hall. Most of the people who give presentations these days never speak publicly about their personal drug experiences at all if they can help it; and when they talk about the experiences of others, they tend to focus almost exclusively upon quantifiable results pertaining to their pet substance’s potential therapeutic value with respect to well established disorders like cluster headaches, autism, depression, or PTSD. And hey, like I said, I’m not knocking any of that. But I do feel like the current thrust of the discussion is disproportionately reductionist. (Not to say that we’re missing the whole point). Intentionally turning up the yin ratio seems to me like an excellent way to help bring balance to the Force in this arena. So I was very much heartened by some of the WVCs more feeling-toned talks. I found their willingness to entertain a modicum of qualitative analysis refreshing. And the less hierarchical and more participatory discussion group format of some of the workshops brought out data points and addressed individual concerns in a novel and elegant way.

I’ve talked with several prominent producers about the apparent gender bias inherent in their selection process, and most of them quite naturally plead innocent. They protest that not enough highly qualified women are putting themselves forward. Heck, most of the time the reason that these folks are calling me up in the first place is because they’re so desperate to look egalitarian that they’re willing to at least consider taking a chance on a totally random wildcard like myself. Or if that risk is too rich for their blood (never trust a faerie…) then they invariably want to know if I might be able to suggest a few of my more presentable female associates for their consideration.

I think that it’s worth looking deeper than that, though. A man named Joseph Gelfer recently did a research project that focused on gender and entheogenic spirituality in Australia. It was essentially just an anonymous online survey, but I really think the article that he wrote about it is worth a read. He started asking questions after a participant called attention to the vast sexual imparity amongst the presenters at Entheogenisis Australis in 2010. What he found, unsurprisingly, was that many people reported that they perceive the psychedelic community to be relatively open and progressive. He also uncovered quite a bit of underlying dissatisfaction though. Especially amongst the women.

One anonymous survey respondent summed it all up fairly succinctly:

“There is little to no feminist critique of the entheogenic community. There are some people who are outspoken in their belief that women’s contributions and women’s experiences are inferior or unimportant to the community in general. Others however, maintain that there is equality within the community, but are unwilling or unable to examine the causes of obvious inequality (for example, the reasons why the presenters at the EGA conference are almost all men), choosing to blame it on the women for not ‘wanting’ to participate rather than examining the many reasons why women feel marginalized and unwelcome to participate within the community. The few exceptions are generally either held up as evidence of inclusivity (for example ‘we had one woman amongst the six men on the panel, therefore we aren’t sexist!’), used as evidence of exceptionalism (for example ‘she may be a woman, but she does chemistry like a man.’), or treated as a special category of ‘women’s spirituality’, separate from the more general category of spirituality (for example, shamans and female shamans). Many women’s contributions to the field are ignored entirely, attributed to men or minimized.”

One reasonable explanation for the gender gap is that fewer women generally tend to take an active interest in psychedelics. It’s sort of difficult to get reliable mass statistics on overall usage, but I strongly suspect that there is some truth in the statement that more men than women are inclined to experiment with illegal drugs. It is well known that girls are typically enculturated–and perhaps biologically disposed–to be more risk-averse than boys, and many recreational substances have a dangerous and seedy reputation. (My cursory research suggests that this inhibiting effect does not necessarily extend to pharmaceuticals, however. More women than men currently hold prescriptions for hypnotics and anxiolytics, for instance.) Two-thirds of Gelfer’s anonymous survey respondents claimed that they were men. And while Erowid has no way to track the gender of its visitors, we do know that more than 80% of our own survey respondents over the years have identified themselves as male. It’s hard for me to imagine that a large portion of the population would lie about their gender on anonymous surveys. I suppose that one could argue that more men than women might be inclined to respond to surveys in the first place, but that instinctively sounds fairly unlikely to me; and even if it were true, it would in no sense account for such a wide abyss. In addition, of 19,035 experience reports published on Erowid that indicate the author’s gender, only 15.42% are listed as female, so that seems to support the survey results with regard to the gender of the site’s users. I suppose that one factor that could be contributing to the disparity is that women may be more inclined to focus on fewer substances, and once they’ve sufficiently educated themselves about those they don’t really need to keep coming back here; whereas men may be more likely to consider trying out the latest rage, and therefore they wisely tend do more research over a longer period of time.

My own personal experience kind of backs up the perception that men tend to be more into the really intense stuff than women are. Of course my perceptions might be biased by my having grown up as a cute-enough girl who was also a bit of a tomboy. Most of my friends have always been guys, mainly because I was a nerdy little spaz in junior high school, and it took me almost 20 years to get over the paralyzing fear of my own gender that I developed in my formative years. (Girls really can be quite cruel when their sense of social dynamics is still developing.) In any case, lots of my guy friends have often sought me out as a trip buddy. Partly because it’s an intimacy, maybe. It could also be that they sometimes felt more comfortable going deep with a nurturing feminine presence around. Interestingly, I haven’t actually noticed too much of a gender gap amongst the participants at any of the psychedelically oriented events that I go to. General attendance at concerts, raves, festivals, and to a lesser extent even the more modern entheogenic conferences, seems to be split fairly evenly. But the perception among many people is that women in general (although there are obvious exceptions) tend to be “social users” who might take a little bit of ecstasy or something once in a while; whereas most of the late-night DMT circles and so forth are disproportionately dripping with testosterone.

One rarely examined explanation might be that females often feel less comfortable letting themselves go in mixed company. Sadly, there are a number of very good reasons for this. I’m not going to get into the whole rape culture rap in this forum, but I don’t need to explain why I would be a lot more sanguine about letting my hypothetical teenager participate in the rave scene if said teenager had happened to have been born with a penis. Which totally isn’t fair. But there it is. Women are conditioned to keep their wits about them when they’re out in public. Girls who stop paying close attention to their surroundings make themselves into easy targets for predation. And they often end up taking the blame for it, too. Relaxing one’s defenses is tantamount to asking for it, right? At the very least, the apologists say, they were obviously stupid for letting their guard down and they totally should have known better.

Then there’s the whole having-of-babies thing. Women are usually their children’s primary caretakers, and those happy duties can put quite a big damper on a girl’s practice. To say nothing of her touring schedule. My husband and I have always wanted to have a family, but frankly I’m not even sure that I’m going to end up going in for all that at this point. For one thing, I’d be looking down the barrel of something like three years of relative sobriety, at least if I decided to nurse for a good long time. (Which I totally would.) But I could handle that. Really. The problem is that some of the things I like to do are a little bit risky, and if I had a baby I would feel a whole lot less comfortable with taking those risks. I’m not particularly worried that I’m going to get myself hurt or anything. Nothing that I’m terribly interested in seems to me to be much more dangerous than driving a car on the Los Angeles freeways, which is something that I’ve long since been resigned to doing on an almost daily basis. But what would happen to my baby if I got arrested? In light of this question I can see why women who even might want to have children someday could come to be especially reluctant to publicly associate their names with such a taboo topic.

 Pregnant Angel by Martina Hoffmann -, ©2001 Martina Hoffmann - used by Erowid with permission

Or, hey! Maybe it’s just that the fairer sex tends to get the message faster; and while a larger-than-suspected number of women experiment with psychedelics in their youth, many hang up the phone and stop diddling with it once they’ve come to thoroughly understand the true nature of the universe or whatever. Or perhaps, by and large, we simply don’t seem to find the experience as compelling as the guys do for some reason. (Sort of like football and car parts, only much much different.) But if so, you can’t prove it by me. I’ve been at it for years now and I still feel like I’m at the very beginning of the most unimaginably fascinating journey ever.

There is a theory that suggests that the real reason why men sexually subjugate women is because they are secretly (and perhaps even unconsciously) jealous of our vastly superior orgasmic potential. They simply can’t stand knowing that we’re capable of giving ourselves a far better version of their favorite experience pretty much over and over again all day long. Worse yet, our libido doesn’t drag most of us around by the nose all that much. It’s like we can take it or leave it. Naturally men would want to stick it to us once in a while because of the sheer magnitude of this outrageous cosmic injustice! I don’t know if I really buy any of that stuff, but I do know that the first curandera that I ever drank with in the Amazon (blows the Teahorn for Norma Panduro, now with the ancestors), told our group that male shamans had pushed out a lot of the local female practitioners “because they were afraid of the women’s superior powers”. Perhaps she was making a joke. For what it’s worth, she also told us that the ban on women taking ayahuasca while they’re menstruating only exists because the energies that the moon cycle can raise sometimes get a little bit too intense for the delicate male psyche.

In any event, while I admit that I might be mildly prejudiced, it seems to me that those of us who have two X chromosomes are in some senses better cut out to be psychedelic explorers. Our boundaries seem to be more permeable, for one thing. Its advantageous for us to come pre-programmed with the ability to handle being sexually receptive, for instance, which requires a great deal of fundamental trust and a willingness to surrender control. And we’re designed to get pregnant and have babies, which is pretty much the most intense and boundary-defying experience that it’s possible to imagine. I’m both a frequent trip-sitter and a birth doula, and I can tell you that I’ve never seen anybody undergo a more powerful and transformative ordeal than giving birth. I’m also proud to report that every single woman who I’ve had the honor of laboring with totally transcended herself and turned into a total freaking superhero when the time came. We are built to be badasses, in other words. Besides which, we’re typically more intuitive. We’re good at exploring our feelings. We’re terrific at multi-tasking, and we can switch back and forth fairly fluidly between multiple divergent tracks of thought. Throw in our relatively elevated empathic sense, and I’d wager that if there were a psychedelic game show, the top-rated women would end up outperforming the top-rated men in almost every category. Of course, most of us probably wouldn’t be all that interested in turning our personal practices into some kind of a goddamn competition in the first place…

I hope that it’s self-evident that I’m intentionally playing into some pretty stereotypical generalizations here in order to get my points across. But for the record let me clarify that I’m fully cognizant of the fact that each and every person is unique. Psychedelics can dissolve psychological boundaries, and many men have reported that their exploratory experiences have helped them to get more in touch with their feminine sides. The converse to this is naturally true, as well. Besides which, there is obviously a wide range of variation amongst the population at large. I know plenty of guys who are super empathic; and for that matter, I know quite a few women who are extremely competitive. There are literally millions of people out there who totally don’t conform to societally normative gender roles at all, and in my opinion this is a wonderful thing. I also acknowledge that there are a whole bunch of people out there who are androgynous or who identify as a gender other than the one that they were born into. Vive la difference! Psychedelic society has always seemed to me to be almost axiomatically open minded, and I tend to think of it as being an especially queer-friendly culture. (Joseph Gelfer’s survey indicated that this was the case, as well.) But considering how many men apparently believe that our community long ago achieved gender equality, I guess that I really ought to interview a few more visibly queer folks before I hazard to confirm my cursory assessment.

 Unio-Mystica by A. Andrew Gonzalez -, ©2002 A. Andrew Gonzalez - used by Erowid with permission

I’ve been involved for over a year in a wonderful women’s circle that occasionally takes psychedelic drugs together. Lots of similar groups have sprung up all over the place lately. Maybe it’s because events like the Women’s Visionary Congress have helped to catalyze a deeper sense of sisterhood amongst female practitioners. Or maybe it’s just an idea whose time has come. It’s pretty exciting, either way. At least it is for Yours Truly. Because, frankly, this is the first time in my life that I’ve ever had a group of female friends who could really get in there and meet me on that level. It’s been a revelation for me, to say the least. And an invaluable blessing. I’ve also recently heard about a number of ayahuasca ceremonies that are supposed to be exclusively for women. This may partially be a response to the increasing number of women who have reported feeling sexually harassed and occasionally even actively victimized by male “shamans” who did not turn out to be deserving of the profound trust that those kinds of relationships demand. The women’s ayahuasca ceremonies that I’ve heard about personally tend to be group-lead. I have not yet attended one myself, but I can tell you that for the most part the stories related to me about the quality of the energy at these events and the powerful healing that regularly takes place at them have been extremely encouraging.

Your mileage may vary. But if you’re an entheogenically inclined woman who has never really gotten a chance to trip in an exclusively female environment before, I strongly suggest calling up a few of your like-minded girlfriends and proposing a magical play-date. You might be surprised what you learn about yourself, for one thing. And for another thing, it’s a terrific bonding experience. It can also be a whole lot of fun.

I also think that all of us should be doing everything that we reasonably can to bring up the yin ratio in every individual facet of our community. Psychedelic culture is out of balance right now, and in order to change that we are going to have to be even more proactive than we already have been. Some of us are going to have to choose to pursue risky careers in a stigmatized and highly circumscribed field. And the women who are already involved in this field are going to have to start insisting on getting more credit for their own hard work. We’re going to have to start putting ourselves forward more, even if it means feeling like the token Pink Ranger on every damned panel that we cheerfully agree to sit on for a while. And once we get up there, we’re going to have to try to inspire even more remarkable young women to follow in our footsteps, which means that we have to learn how to model good leadership skills.

We need to get together more often, too. Events like the Women’s Visionary Congress are important. But in order to make any significant progress, we’re going to have to start getting better at bringing all of that openness and enthusiasm back home with us. We need to form even more women’s circles in our own communities. We need to collectively learn how foster a genuine psychedelic sisterhood. We need to figure out how to provide trustworthy mentorship to the many promising young women who are just starting to rise up to meet their road…

And we also need to plan another trip to the hot springs. Like soon!